Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy discovers rare sungrazing comet

A sequence of images of Comet Lovejoy photographed by Rob Kaufman. The comet is the faint blue-green fuzz between the tick marks. Credit: Rob Kaufman

Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy has just discovered his third comet. This one’s  extra special, because it’s the first member of the Kreutz sungrazing family of comets discovered from Earth in over 40 years.  This group of comets, named for German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz, are all believed to be fragments of a much larger comet that broke into pieces centuries ago. The fragments – most of them very small – continue along the old comet’s original orbit and flare into brilliance when they draw near the sun.

Two Kreutz sungrazing comets discovered by SOHO's coronagraph in 1998. The instrument blocks the blinding disk of the sun so astronomers can study its outer atmosphere or corona. Credit: NASA/ESA

Sungrazers aren’t uncommon – every few days one swims through the field of view of the coronagraph on the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), often brightening from invisibility to the equal of Mercury or Venus as the sun boils them into brilliance. Most vaporize in the heat of the sun’s atmosphere and are never seen again.

Sungrazers are rarely visible from the ground because they’re intrinsically small and faint and only flare up when too close to the sun to be seen. All the glare caused by our atmosphere gets in the way except when viewed in airless space from the SOHO and STEREO probes.

Comet C/2008 O1 SOHO was only visible from Earth when the sky darkened during the total solar eclipse on August 1, 2008. Comet is set off by tick marks. Credit: Miloslav Druckmuller, Peter Aniol and Vojtech Rusin

That’s what makes Lovejoy’s discovery remarkable. He found a sungrazer using a camera on his wide-field 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope from his home in Brisbane, Australia. Prior to this discovery, Lovejoy discovered several other sungrazers through careful examination of online SOHO photographs. The last sun-approaching comet discovered and seen by a human with a telescope on Earth was Comet White-Ortiz-Bolelli in 1970. It grew a beautiful tail and dazzled at 1st magnitude. I should also mention Comet C/2008 O1 SOHO, originally picked up by SOHO, was captured in a photograph of the August 1, 2008 total solar eclipse.

Michael Mattiazzo combined ten 10-second exposures to make this picture of Comet Lovejoy on December 2. Even in that brief time, the comet trailed because of its rapid motion. Click photo for Michael's website.

Lovejoy found his latest comet on November 27 after taking three images each of some 200 different star fields. Studying the pictures, Terry spotted a fast-moving fuzzy object on one of the frames he thought might be just an internal reflection within the camera lens or eyepiece. He returned two mornings later, re-photographing the place he suspected the comet might be and found the ‘fuzz’ again. At that point he requested confirmation from other comet observers, and on December 1  received an e-mail from a team at Mt. John Observatory in New Zealand that they had photographed it, too. Bingo!

Comet Lovejoy's path in the morning sky as seen from the southern hemisphere at intervals of 5 days. It moves rapidly from Lupus toward Scorpius in the next week. The "sharp-edge" in the loop when nearest the sun on Dec. 16 is an artifact. The sun's position is shown for Dec. 4 and 16. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software

Comet Lovejoy is presently 54 million miles from the sun but will sweep only 550,000 miles above its surface when it reaches perihelion or closest approach on Dec. 15-16. Unfortunately, the comet won’t be seen from the northern hemisphere as it speeds through the constellations Lupus, Norma and Scorpius. From the southern hemisphere it’s only about 11th magnitude at the moment and low in the morning sky.

That will soon change. According to the discovery bulletin from the IAU Minor Planet Center, Lovejoy will brighten rapidly in the coming days and reach naked eye visibility by mid-month. Don’t get TOO excited. No one is likely to see it that bright at least from the ground because the comet will be too close to the sun at that time.

Not to fret. Comet Lovejoy will enter the field of view of SOHO’s coronagraph and STEREO’s cameras around Dec. 12. We’ll all have front row, computer-screen seats to watch the spectacle unfold before the comet almost certainly burns up in the sun’s heat near perihelion.

Congratulations Terry on your excellent discovery!

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

12 thoughts on “Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy discovers rare sungrazing comet

  1. Great news Bob Terry Lovejoy is a genius these comets seem to be virtually impossible to pick up this early can’t wait for great views from my computer. I have heard sometimes subgrazing comets can be very bright.

  2. Hi,
    I just wonder that comet you said could be planet X or not?? Because I saw it from alots of site, they zoom it alot more bigger, that comet look like having wings and bright…

  3. Astrobob,
    Would us amateurs be able to see the comet in hydrogen alpha ,or regular sun filter on or about the 12 of Dec. ? Thanks for the find !

    • Hi Lee,
      Very unlikely. Comet Lovejoy is probably very small as most Kreutz comets are and would not be visible seen against the sun. I checked brightness and at least in my software program, the comet rapidly brightens as it approaches the sun and then just as quickly fades. Maximum mag. shown is about -8 when it’s literally right next to the sun and invisible. When about 2 degrees from the sun, Lovejoy will be around mag. 0. That’s pretty bright but so close it would be very difficult and probably unsafe to attempt to spot in a telescope. If by chance its brightness shoots up to say, -10 mag, when it’s still a few degrees from the sun, amateurs with visual solar filters might indeed by able to see it. Most amateur astronomers who follow comets suspect it will crest at only around -2 to -5 when closest and survive perihelion. We’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll update the blog with the latest info.

    • Hi David,
      How are the pups? I haven’t heard any more news on H2O on alien planets but I have no doubt it’s there. Going good. I’m looking forward to Saturday’s lunar eclipse.

  4. The puppies are now 1 month and they are always playing. Will i notice the eclipse were i am in kansas city mo. If so whats the times im central

  5. I seen this on youtube can you define it to me or do you have any information that might define it???? See website above please. Thank you so much! Kelly

    • Hi Kelly,
      This guy’s been watching too many Star Trek episodes. The object in the video is either a portion of the coronal mass ejection occurring at the time or an internal reflection in the camera lens. The “cloaked ship” is in his imagination.

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